Belting Up: Adjusting (Back) to Live Games

Scotty Nguyen, Isaac Haxton

Before the holidays, while most of the population was pondering what gifts to give to their various family members, I opted to put in an extended live session at my local casino.

Because playing online is so ridiculously convenient, or perhaps because I'm becoming increasingly anti-social, I haven't been playing nearly as much live poker as in previous years.

In fact, in recent months, I'm probably averaging just one or two live sessions per month.

However, every time I go to the casino, I spend most of the drive home questioning why I don't go more often. Whether it's alcohol-related bravado, peer pressure, or simply some mysterious force that compels people to act foolishly when they enter a casino, the overall caliber of play, at least in this particular casino, is shockingly poor.

Sure, there are plenty of good players, but for the most part, they can be avoided. It's almost like that famous scene in Rounders where all of the New York City regulars are sitting at the same table in Atlantic City waiting for the tourists to sit down.

The local casino I prefer only spreads two different No-Limit Hold'em games - a $1/$2 game with a $200 maximum buy-in and a $2/$5 game with a $1,000 maximum buy-in. Most evenings, there are three or four tables of the $2/$5 No-Limit.

Compared to an average online game, I've noticed the following significant differences in the live games at this casino:

  1. The average player plays significantly more hands
  2. The typical pre-flop raise is much larger than in a comparable online game (usually at least 6x the big blind and often as much as 10x)
  3. You get lots more loose calls
  4. Very few pots are re-raised pre-flop

These differences give you lots of opportunity for big profits if the right adjustments are made. Because of the higher buy-in (relative to the blind structure) and the size of the pre-flop raises, the game is actually far more similar to a $5/$10 No-Limit game than a $2/$5 game.

In a typical (nine-handed) online game you might have an average VP$IP percentage of somewhere between 20-26%. In this live game, despite the fact it's usually played 10-handed, the average VP$IP is significantly closer to 40%.

Maybe people simply can't stand folding. They've come all the way down to the casino, waited in line for a seat and only have a few hours to play.

Consequently, they want to play, and to the typical live player, folding doesn't count as playing. The end result is most of your opponents will be playing way more hands than they should.

Here are some simple adjustments to make to take advantage of these games:

1) Semi-bluff significantly less often

Most players call too much (both before and after the flop). Value bet marginal hands more frequently.

2) Play significantly tighter in early position

Because many pre-flop raises are unusually large, be much more selective when entering the pot from early position.

3) Take advantage when you have position

Play significantly looser from the cut-off and button (especially with hands that play well in multi-way pots such as suited connectors and small pairs) even if the pot has been raised. You'll generally be getting extremely good implied odds with these hands.

4) Where possible, try and manipulate the size of the pot to your advantage

For example, when you're in middle-to-late position, think about making a small, pot-building raise to $25 pre-flop with small pocket pairs and small-to-medium-suited connectors.

This is like making a defensive, or blocking bet. The goal of the raise is to see a relatively cheap flop with a promising hand. By making a small preemptive raise, you hope to discourage someone else from making a larger raise.

5) Stay patient

You have to remember in any one evening you'll only be getting 250-300 hands in a 10-hour shift. This is roughly the same number as you would get in a single hour of online play (assuming you're multi-tabling).

You may only get a handful of playable hands the whole evening. That's just the nature of the game. Don't stray from your strategy.

Utilizing these simple adjustments should let you profit handsomely from the typical live game. Of course, even if you make these adjustments, things will occasionally go badly - it's simply part of the game.

When some complete jackass sucks out on you and wins a ridiculously large pot with an absurd hand, just smile and try to remind yourself that he's playing exactly how you want him to.

It's your long-term results that matter and if you make the correct adjustments, those results should be pretty good.

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